The Great Plains are the grasslands of the North American continent, and lie between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.
Early European explorers found the Plains a very hostile environment, and the area was marked on early maps as the 'great American desert'.
Characteristics of the Great Plains:
- enormous size
- lack of trees
- semi-arid - little water available
- unpredictable weather, including extremely cold and violent winters
- ferocious winds - the winter 'Northers' and the scorching summer winds
- many areas flat and featureless
- inhabited by locusts and grasshoppers
- inhabited by wolves
The Native Americans were not one people, but many tribes. The most famous tribes were the Apache, Sioux, Blackfeet and Cheyenne, each one led by its own Council of Elders.
The Native American way of government led new settlers on the Great Plains to think that the earliest inhabitants of the land had no government at all. This was not true, but their government was based on principles that the newcomers had difficulty in understanding.
In fact, the hunt was the only occasion when everybody had to obey. The Native American tribes did not need strict laws, because the harsh environment forced them to work together. Consequently, most tribes had few laws, and the worst punishment was banishment (which meant death, given the harsh Plains environment). The only duty that members of the tribe had was to pray.For example, a Native American chief had no power over his people, although he did have great respect from them, based on his bravery in war. And the only 'police' in Native American society were warriors called dog-soldiers, who selected and broke camp, fed the old and the weak, stopped buffalo being scared away, and controlled the hunt.
Because there was a need to take care of the women and children of the tribe,marriage was easy. At 17 a youth paid a dowry of horses and took his bride (aged 12-15). The Native Americans practiced polygamy (they had more than one wife), because many men died in the struggle to survive, so there was an excess of women to be cared for.
Community spirit on the Plains
- The whole tribe had tojoin togetherfor the buffalo hunt.
- The young braves thought it wasan honourto feed the old and the weak.
- Old people voluntarilycommitted exposure(wandered off to die), as the tribe couldn't afford hangers-on.
- They considered theworst crimesto be not looking after one's parents, hurting people who were sick, or harming the religion.
- Horse stealing(from other tribes) was admired.
Native American view of war
- War was based onambushand skill (eg stealing a tied horse).
- No one was forced to go to war - individual warriorschoseto follow the chief to war or not, as they felt best.
- The aim of war was tocapture horsesand to show bravery.
- The bravest act of war was to score acoup(where a warrior tapped his enemy with a stick and escaped).